Genuine well being for ourselves and the planet

Archive for the ‘Relationships’ Category

Personal Happiness and Broken Systems

Periodically, I feel compelled to stress that my passion for spreading the happiness gospel is based on a fervent desire for a radically different political and economic paradigm — one that is focused on the genuine well-being of people and the planet, as opposed to a world which “has become an idolator of this god called money,” according to Pope Francis.  Like the Pope (I never thought I’d say that!), I “want a just system that helps everyone.”

The events last night that led to my granddaughter Madeleine taking care of her first ever baby doll have once again inspired me to write about the connection between personal happiness and broken systems.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My granddaughter practices nurturing relationships with her first ever doll.

My path is, of course, different from the Pope’s.  I believe that cultivating personal happiness is a key element (not the only element)  in working toward this shift.  Here are a few reasons why.  With greater understanding of personal happiness, comes a deeper appreciation of the sadness, emptiness, and destruction inherent in relying solely on Gross National Product  measurements of success.  When we internalize the knowledge that money and material goods are important but only a piece of our personal happiness, and also understand that chasing the almighty dollar can seriously undermine our enjoyment of life, we can so much more easily grasp the practical and visionary potential of a Gross National Happiness paradigm.

Further, cultivating personal happiness will strengthen the traits we need for the indescribably huge challenges of ameliorating climate change and ending the grown economy.  As we become happier individuals, we are, for starters:

  • less attached to things;
  • more optimistic;
  • more resilient;
  • more aware of what is truly going on around us;
  • more creative;
  • more compassionate: and
  • more grateful.

Oh, yes, and we are also more fun to be around — which no doubt makes us better messengers.

Okay, I’ll climb off the soapbox now and share what made me want to climb up there in the first place.  About a week ago, my daughter Jennifer’s old clunker car finally died.   She and my 20-month-old granddaughter will soon be joining us for a long Christmas break, but for a week and a half, she has had to cobble together a new transportation “system”: getting rides from friends, walking, and taking the bus.  She is fortunate to live in a city with decent public transit, but even so, last night my daughter and granddaughter spent 45 minutes on a cold, dark, and snowy Wisconsin night waiting for the bus to take them home.  It was pretty hard for Jennifer to be happy when her baby was crying from the cold.  My daughter sang to the baby to keep her calm until Jennifer’s cheeks were just too cold to keep singing.

Of course, the bus arrived eventually.  At home,  Jennifer decided it was a good time to open a Christmas present from Madeleine’s other grandmother.  That present is Madeleine’s first baby doll.   Watching her toddler practice taking care of this immediately beloved toy gave  my daughter a lot of reasons to feel much happier — gratitude, love, savoring the moment, etc.  So the story has a happy ending.

To me, this little vignette illustrates both the limits of, and the value of, personal happiness within broken systems.  For starters, cultivating our internal happiness is especially  important in the context of broken systems because, hey, this is the only life we get!  We should make the most of it, no matter the systems we live within.  I am so glad Jennifer and Madeleine got to end their evening on such a positive note.

To be clear, my daughter’s situation isn’t that bad.   She has a great job, a wonderful apartment, and a cousin who is helping her get a new car over Christmas break.  She’s only lived in Wisconsin a short time, yet she already has a group of friends who have been amazingly generous in providing rides.  Jennifer’s monetary resources may be limited, but she has almost an embarrassment of riches in terms of friends and family who love her and can help when help is needed.  Which brings me to another reason for cultivating personal happiness, a la nurturing relationships: it provides us the tools to build alternatives to systems that break.

But personal happiness has its limits.  My daughter’s transportation struggles inspired me to write about Gross National Happiness because of the millions of young parents — or old grandparents, for that matter — who struggle with transportation to school, work, and child care day in and day out, in broiling heat as well as frigid cold.  Their own fatigue and discomfort, intensified by their children’s suffering, may well make “happiness” seem like a ridiculous goal.  Not everyone has presents waiting for them at home, and there is no reliable car in the immediate future for untold numbers of America’s working families.  We do not have “a just system that helps everyone.”

And then there’s the obvious: we should all be weaning ourselves off fossil fuels.  A political and economic system focused on the well being of people and the planet would surely be moving rapidly toward excellent systems of mass transit.

Another obvious point: transportation is just one of our many broken systems.  That is why, this Christmas season, I will be spending lots and lots of time with my family and friends — giving and receiving, singing, playing in the snow, laughing, meditating, and doing my best to live a happy life.  At the same time, I’ll be working with my friends at Gross National Happiness USA and The Happiness Initiative to move towards a world of greater peace and justice, a world that does more than pay lip service to well being for all.

As Tiny Tim says, “God bless us, every one.”  Everyone.

And now I have to go bake cookies.

Conflict Makes Us Unhappy … Right?? Part 1.

In 2005, when I was in my early 50’s and weary of the full time craft show life, I decided to study mediation at Woodbury College.  With no mediation experience or knowledge, I failed to appreciate the irony when I told Admissions Director Kathleen Moore (now a dear friend) that I hated conflict while I simultaneously professed my enthusiasm for enrolling.  Mediators, it turns out, work in the heart of conflict.  My remark convinced Kathleen that I was not going to apply.

But I did, earning an M.S. in Mediation and Applied Conflict Studies in 2007.  I loved the program and the “magic” of mediation.  Indeed, I’ve never really left.  Even before I graduated, I began working for the program — now owned by Champlain College — as a coach for new mediation students.  Several times a year, I head to campus to support fledgling mediators as they practice their new tools in emotional role play after emotional role play.  It’s an exhausting but satisfying gig, and I’m grateful for it.  I also created Home Share Now‘s position of staff mediator, and have been  a conflict coach and conflict skills workshop facilitator.

And, I still dislike conflict.  It makes me sick to my stomach, and I want to avoid it.  It’s just that now I know that avoiding conflict is rarely the best choice.  So when I’m in the midst of an upsetting situation, I grit my teeth and plunge in.  In those moments, I am decidedly unhappy.  Ugh.  I just hope that facing the hurt and anger with skill, honesty, compassion, and forgiveness — toward the other person and toward myself — will ultimately lead to greater understanding, healthier relationships, and more happiness.

Since conflict is inevitable in relationships, and strong relationships rank in the top five of almost any happiness list, learning how to engage in productive conflict is a key happiness strategy.  Poorly managed conflict can undermine or destroy relationships; conflict done well strengthens relationships.

I remember the “aha” moment when this truth struck home.

Just a couple of kids in love

It was during a break from a probing class on Interpersonal Conflict, taught by the redoubtable Tammy Lenski, author of The Conflict Zen blog.  As I recall, Tammy had just pegged me as a conflict avoider, one of five universal conflict styles*.   Headed toward the bathroom, I thought, “I do NOT avoid all conflict.  I always engage in conflict with Bob!”  And then I thought, and who, out of everyone I know, do I have the best relationship with?  Hands-down, with my husband Bob, with whom I am very happy.

Hmmm.  Coincidence?  Of course not.

Apparently, conflict actually — ultimately — makes us happy.

Still in love, 40+ years later

Of course, that’s conflict done well — and that isn’t an easy standard, even for conflict professionals.  We humans are complex,  messy, and obliviously self-serving — especially when we’re pissed off.

The good news is, no one needs a master’s degree to get a lot better working through arguments, differences of opinion, hurt, etc.  Once again, Bob is “Exhibit A” for me; he learned with and from me as I earned my degree, and his own conflict skills have improved significantly.

Over and over in my happiness research, the tremendous value of mindfulness rises to the surface.  Conflict is no exception.  You have to be mindful as you ask, what is really going on here?  What did I do?  Why?  What do I want?  Why?  Ditto for the other person. Because the answers can be painful, compassion also comes in quite handy.

One way to make it easier to answer these questions is, to use mediator jargon, figure out what each person’s positions and interests are.  Once you know what each person really wants, you’ll have a much better shot at coming up with a solution that leaves everyone at least moderately satisfied.

I’ll illustrate by sharing a situation when I was not exactly at my best.  Bob had done the grocery shopping, and, as per request, had bought me shampoo.  But it was, sin of sins, the wrong shampoo!!  I love the scent of vanilla, and through the years had told him repeatedly to please get the vanilla shampoo.  He hadn’t done so, and I got mad.  I made some ungrateful and ungracious remarks, and he got mad, too.  We retreated to our corners, both of us steaming.

Since life in my house is much happier when we are not angry at each other, and, I had this shiny new mediator degree in my back pocket, I sat in my corner and tried to figure out why we were so upset.  “You bought the wrong shampoo!” was a positional accusation.  I needed to understand why it mattered so much — then I would know what my interest was in this conflict.  I realized that I did not feel heard, or validated, by my husband.  In other words, my feelings were hurt.

I also knew my own behavior left something to be desired (as one friend put it, “my halo had slipped”).  Acknowledging our own contribution to conflict is another helpful tool in working together toward a solution.

So I went back to Bob, and asked him to please work with me on understanding what had happened.  After he reluctantly agreed, I apologized for my reaction and my hurtful words.  He knew all about positions and interests, so I told him what I thought my interests were and asked him what he thought.  He then told me that when he realized the store was out of vanilla shampoo, he had tried hard to figure out what other scent was mostly likely to please me.  He thought it was better to get the best possible shampoo, rather than no shampoo at all.  Naturally, my pissiness at seeing his choice had stung.

From that point on, we could not only work through this incident but even learn from it: I now buy all my own shampoo.  Conflict successfully resolved!

Okay, a little marital spat about incorrectly scented shampoo is of no great importance — on the surface.  But in this incident, as in most incidences, the real important concerns (interests) were below the surface (position).

Positions and interests were also on my mind this morning while I took care of my three-month-old grandbaby.  When she cries — well, that’s positional.  The reasons she cries — hey, that’s her only way of expressing her interests.  Hungry, bored, tired … When I correctly understand her interest and respond accordingly, one of the things that’s happening is a deepening of the relationship between us — and that makes me immeasurably happy.

Paradoxically, using positions and interests in conflict situations is both elegantly simple and frustratingly challenging.  In addition to mindfulness and compassion, it can take persistence, courage, hope, and lots of open-hearted questioning and listening.  You may even have to be the grown-up in the situation, which is challenging in and of itself when you feel wronged.  But hang in there.  You might just end up happier.


* The other styles are competing, accommodating, compromising, and problem-solving.  I’ll discuss these and various other helpful conflict tools, in later posts.